A Woman of Previously Good Character – a taster

Let’s be honest about it. A Woman of Previously Good Character is not exactly charging up the Amazon charts. In fact, to be even more brutally honest, it is plummeting down the Amazon charts at an alarming rate. And that’s partly because I’m rubbish at marketing and partly because it is very hard to gain any visibility these days. I don’t think it is because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written, but maybe I’m not the best judge of that. Certainly it received a good reception from a publisher I approached, even if they were only able to offer me the kind of deal that involves an upfront payment by the author.

Anyway, I thought I would offer the Prologue and first chapter here. Then, if anyone would like to read a substantial chunk before committing to buy, this is a solution. I do hope some of you will give it a try:

Prologue

Once upon a time, there lived a woman whose life crashed out of control. In all probability, it was her own fault. She was, after all, remarkably stupid. The End. 

There, I’ve done it. That’s all. 

‘Write it down,’ she said, ‘if you’re finding it too hard to talk about.’ And that was certainly true. Too hard doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt about talking about that, or indeed anything else. Sitting in a room with a total stranger, expected to bare my soul, to delve into events I still can’t believe actually happened. It was ridiculous.

But then, I had little choice but to remain. To let my eyes wander from one motivational or morally uplifting poster to the next. I particularly liked the image of a young woman running, arms raised, through the finishing tape. “The only way to finish is to start,” declared the text superimposed over her legs. Well, I thought. I never would have worked that out. I’m glad I came after all. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t rise to my feet and march out, as every bone in my body yearned to do.

‘You have to engage with the process,’ my probation officer had said. ‘Let me make this perfectly clear.  A suspended sentence is exactly that. Failure to comply will …’

“Yes, alright, I know,’ I snapped, although I was perfectly aware that it would be reckless to get on the wrong side of him. ‘You don’t have to keep saying it. I’ll go. I’m just telling you, it’ll be a complete waste of time, for me and for the poor person who has to do it.’

‘Don’t you worry about her,’ he said. ‘She’ll have had tougher nuts than you to crack, believe me. You’re a woman of previously good character, remember? That’s what it says here and that’s what kept your sentence suspended. If I were you, I’d be grateful.’

I opened my mouth to reply but thought better of it. It was hard to feel grateful for my life descending into chaos, but it wasn’t his fault. He was only doing his job, just as all the others were, right up to the judge, who’d looked at me with a mixture of distaste and pity before sending my guts plummeting. ‘I’m minded to impose a custodial sentence in this case. This was a reckless act with the potential for the injury to have been much more serious. And the evidence points to a degree of planning. For those reasons …’

By the time she added ‘suspended for two years’ the edges of my vision had darkened and there was such a loud roaring in my ears that I didn’t hear what she said. It was only when everyone stood up and nobody came to take me away that I realised what had happened. I should have felt much better then but, for some reason, I didn’t. 

So I attended the first session. That’s how I found myself sitting not quite opposite Mariella, who insisted I call her that right from the start. I don’t remember confirming my consent for the use of first names so early in our relationship, but she didn’t seem to care. She used mine with such frequency during the first ten minutes, I began to wonder if it was actually my name at all. Like when you say a word so many times it loses all meaning.

But I shouldn’t be unkind. I’m sure she means well. She’s young – well probably a bit younger than Maggie – and she must have very poor eyesight, as her glasses make her eyes appear quite disproportionate to her face, like those Japanese cartoon characters. She wears the kind of floaty, floral clothes that Maggie would never be seen dead in, but they suit her. I get the feeling that she’s comfortable in her own skin, as they say. I wish I were.

Her suggestion came at the end. After about fifteen or twenty excruciating minutes of almost total silence on my part, I broke down a little. I didn’t cry – I’ve done enough of that  – but my voice sounded unexpectedly high and my throat had constricted. I couldn’t help it. I told her it was all too much, that I couldn’t do it. How could I be expected to talk about something that didn’t even seem real? 

‘So it’s like a dream?’ she ventured, but I had to contradict that not very original thought. At least with a dream you have some engagement with the content, some memory, even if you know it’s not true, not real. At least you are in it. The whole of this episode feels like it didn’t happen to me at all, even though my brain knows it did. It’s as if somebody stole my body, inhabited it for all that time, then returned it. Here you are, I’ve finished with it. You can have it back now.

I told her that, and she said we might try writing it down. We would still have to meet, as that was what the court had directed, but I could have the best part of a week to think and write whatever I could. As long as I emailed it to her at least twenty-four hours before our next meeting, that would be fine. ‘Think of it as a story,’ she said, ‘with you as the main character. Just start at the beginning and see how it goes.’

So that’s what I’m going to do. Clearly what I have written so far will not do, although it sums up the whole thing perfectly. I will start with that day in Maggie’s kitchen. I will include the emails, although how I’ll cope with reading them again I don’t know. But at least it will show willing. That’s about all I can manage at the moment.

Chapter One: Penny

Dear Mariella,

Please find below all I have achieved since we met. I’m sorry it’s only the very beginning of the story, but it took such a long time to get started and there were several failed attempts before this one. The second part is copied from the actual email I sent to DS. I hope it’s what you had in mind.

Yours,

Penny

***

She was in her daughter Maggie’s kitchen, waiting to go home. Her jacket hung over the back of a chair and her bag was nearby. To be honest, she’d had enough. The children – her grandchildren – had done nothing but bicker for the past hour and it was hard work to persuade them even to help clear the table and load the dishwasher. They didn’t know how lucky they were, but there was no point going down that road.

At last she heard the thump of the front door closing, so she slipped on her jacket. She’d never been able to train Maggie to close doors quietly, although it had driven Eric mad.

‘Oh, Mum, I’m so sorry,’ said Maggie, dumping an assortment of bags on the table. ‘The meeting went on and on, but Craig was chairing it and he’s so …’

‘Never mind,’ she said. Her interest in Craig’s skills as a chairperson was almost non-existent. ‘They’ve eaten, and I’ve cleared up a bit.’

‘You’re a star,’ said Maggie, drawing her into a hug. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you.’

She picked up her bag and opened it. Last time she’d babysat she’d left her phone behind and it had proved to be more inconvenient than she’d expected. She’d only had it a few months but already it had become part of her life, although she’d vowed it wouldn’t. Anyway, it was there, so now she could go home and enjoy the peace and solitude of a microwave dinner for one.

Becky, the oldest of the three children, was flicking through the channels of the TV that was always on, even when they were eating. That was when she saw it.

‘Hang on a minute! Go back a bit, Becky,’ she said. ‘There was something …’  

Becky rolled her eyes and continued to flick, but luckily – or perhaps unluckily – Maggie had heard.

‘What was it Mum? Do you want to watch something? Becky, stop that and give me the remote. Now!’

So Becky handed over the remote with as much good grace as she could muster, which wasn’t a lot, and she had to try not to be offended as Maggie showed her how to change the channel. By that time, it was almost over, but she caught the last half a minute or so. It was him, somehow contriving to look both exactly the same and completely different. She hadn’t seen him for more than forty years and yet there he was, on the TV. Sitting on a high stool, with a guitar on his knee and a mic on a stand before him. He sang the last few lines of a song she’d never heard, then there was applause, the credits rolled and he was gone.

She looked up and became aware of everyone’s eyes upon her.

‘You alright, Mum?’ said Maggie.

‘Yes, of course, I’m fine. Just a bit surprised, I suppose. That singer. I used to know him, years ago, when we were kids. I had no idea he was …’

‘Oh, yes. Daniel Strong. He’s quite big now,’ said Maggie. ‘He had a hit album, just before the summer holidays.’

Even Becky appeared interested. ‘Did you actually know him, Gran? It’s not my kind of thing, but he’s a massive hit with the mums. Angel’s mum is, like, totally obsessed with getting tickets for a gig. Apparently he’s been, what d’you call it? When you play on other people’s albums?’

Mother and daughter provided the answer to that question with a synchronicity they never could have achieved if they’d planned it.

‘Yeah, that’s it. He was a session musician for all those years, then suddenly he has this massive hit album and he’s everywhere.’ She paused for a few seconds then looked at her archly and added, ‘Was he your boyfriend?’

‘No!’ she said. ‘No, he was just … we were in the same crowd. We were friends, I suppose, but not … no, there was nothing like that.’

Becky looked as if she might pursue the subject, but her interest in her grandmother’s past proved to be transient and she turned her attention to her phone which had been flashing and chirping throughout their brief exchange.

Not so Maggie. She wanted to know a lot more, but she had to be satisfied with a version of the truth. In any case, a dispute erupted between the younger two children at that point and that provided an opportunity to escape which she seized with no hesitation.

‘’Bye, Maggie, ‘bye kids, see you soon,’ she called, closing the door on the raised voices and hurrying to her car, bathed in late summer sunshine on the neatly paved drive.  

She had fully intended to forget all about it. After all, she rarely even thought about him these days. Months could go by. Surely it would be easy enough to return to that state? But, apparently, this was not to be. She microwaved her macaroni cheese but it remained there, releasing its borrowed heat and congealing in the process, while she sat with her laptop where her plate should have been. 

That evening, she neither ate nor turned on the TV, usually her reliable antidote to silence, although she did drink the best part of a bottle of wine. Normally, she would resist drinking alone but it seemed appropriate somehow, as if there were something to celebrate. She learned how to download music and she read everything she could find about Daniel Strong. She played the entire album on the laptop, twice, even though she was sure it would have sounded better on Eric’s hi fi. And then she wrote an email. It was late, she was tired and a little drunk and her eyes stung with looking at the screen for so long, but she knew she would never do it if she left it until the morning. She would see sense. This time, just for once, she would not be sensible. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing would happen. Nothing would change.

***

Dear Danny,

I’ve decided to address you in that way, as you were always Danny when I knew you. Now you are Daniel, although I suppose that may be your stage name. Imagine that! Imagine having a stage name as well as your day-to-day epithet. There are a mere handful of people in the entire world who ever have occasion to speak my name out loud and most of them call me something else: Mum, Gran, Mrs Price. Yes, that’s my surname now, although I never really liked it. I preferred my old one.

But I’m rambling. I have a tendency to do that, I know, and you will quickly discover it to be true if you read this, which you won’t. Of course you won’t. You will have someone to read and filter all the messages sent via your website. Some girl with extensions to her hair and fierce, black eyebrows will skim through my words, one hand on the mouse, ready to click on delete with a shiny, plastic fingernail quite unsuited to the task. Or maybe there will be a standard reply: Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you like my album, it means a lot. Yours, Daniel Strong. Now that’s a fine surname. You were fortunate with that. If you’d been christened Daniel Pratt or Daniel Shufflebottom you might have been tempted to change it.

So it matters little what I write here, I’m quite aware of that. After two paragraphs, the girl with the turquoise nails – yes, I’ve given them a colour now – will have consigned me to a category labelled something like “nutty old women” and I can hardly blame her. I know that’s what a lot of people think about females of my age, even without the evidence of almost incomprehensible fan-mail to assist them. But I’m going to continue anyway, because I want to. Because I can. There are many things I can do now that I could never do before, and I intend to do them. Some of them. I may not bother with anything that involves excesses of physical exertion, but the option is there, even for that. And that’s important.

To be perfectly honest, I had no idea you were famous until earlier today. I’d been looking after my grandchildren and I was just about to go home when you came on the TV. I was so surprised. I told them I’d known you, but nothing else.  

Anyway, now I know all about you, or at least I know everything your agent, or publicist or whatever has chosen to tell the public. I know about your years of struggling to make ends meet while never giving up on your dream. That sounds somewhat clichéd, but it might be true. I know about all those hits you played on without so much as a mention. Now that I have a computer and access to the internet, now that I don’t have to sneak into the library if I want to go online, sometimes I find myself lost in obscure backwaters and realise that hours have passed and I haven’t eaten or even made myself a cup of tea. That’s what happened when I got home.

And I learned a new skill. I learned how to download music and play it on the computer. The speakers aren’t brilliant, but it sounds good enough. Good enough to tell me that I love it. Good enough to provide me with my final shock of the day when I heard the track you’ve called “Her First Kiss.” Because you were writing about me, weren’t you? I’ve played it so many times now, I can remember some of the lines without trying:

Her eyes are wide and shining, 

She’s scared she’ll get it wrong, 

But I wrap my hands in her silken hair and our kiss is deep and long, 

Yes, our kiss is deep and long.

First kiss, oh, her first kiss, now our love is true and strong.

Am I being silly here? Sometimes I think I am. Those words could have been inspired by anyone. Or no-one. I’m not being rude, but they’re not terribly original. It’s a well-worn and familiar image and that, together with what I must admit is a very pretty and poignant melody, has resulted in a memorable love song. I’m not surprised it’s a hit with women of a certain age. As I said, I love it too. So why do I think – know – you had me in mind when you wrote it? Well, it’s partly because of the line about wrapping your hands in silken hair. I remember you were always doing that. You loved the feel of my hair. And it’s partly because you knew I’d never been kissed before. You mentioned it, more than once.

I think I’ll stop now. You won’t have read this anyway, and I’ve said enough. And well done! I don’t think I said that before. It’s wonderful that something so exciting and rewarding has happened to you after years of waiting. I only wish that something similar could happen to me, but there’s no chance of that. I haven’t been nurturing a talent for the last forty-odd years. I’m not even sure I have one. I’ve been shut in a metaphorical box, waiting for the lid to open and the sun to shine in, but you don’t want to hear about that. At least now I can look up to the sky. I have that to be grateful for, and much else besides.

With all good wishes,

Penny Price (nee Rose)

Click here to go straight to the Amazon page.

A Woman of Previously Good Character

I published the ebook version of my ninth novel on Monday. It was a largely pain-free process and five people bought it. I hope there will be more in time, but I have learned to manage my expectations so I was quite happy.

Contrast that with the following two days, during which I wrestled with the process of creating a paperback version. Hours and hours were spent trying to resolve formatting problems. Why did the margins change randomly half way through the document? Why did the text creep over the red lines on the cover design, although it looked perfectly fine on the original?

Fortunately, I resisted the temptation to throw my laptop across the room and persevered. Google helped me find a fix where Amazon’s guidance failed. Now Amazon have approved it, and all I have to do is wait 10 days for the proofs to arrive.

I am neither superstitious nor religious, but if you could see into my house when I open the package, you might observe some finger-crossing and even hear a whispered prayer.

Another snippet

Here’s another short section from my work in progress, in the hope that it will encourage some people to read it, once it’s published. I’m hopeful that date is nearer than I thought.

At last, I sat on the bus, willing the journey to pass quickly. Although I wouldn’t see you outside at the start, maybe you’d find a way to get a message to me and we would sneak out at some point. You would go first, then I would follow a few minutes later. You’d be somewhere out of sight, but I’d smell the smoke from your cigarette curling through the twilight air and I’d follow it. And then you’d throw the butt down and put your heel on it, like you always did, and you’d hold out your arms to me. You’d smile that little half-smile. And your kiss would taste of smoke but I wouldn’t care. So went my thoughts as the bus bumped along the lanes and into the outskirts of town. There were so many ways you could show me you still cared. Something would happen, I was sure of that, and I was right. If only I had known what it would be.

An excerpt from my work in progress

I’ve had quite a long period of not writing anything much. Lockdown certainly hasn’t helped. At the start, I thought it would be an opportunity, a catalyst for getting on with this novel that has already taken so much longer than any of the others, but that proved to be wrong. However, I do seem to be getting back into gear, so I thought I’d share this. It is actually quite a pivotal passage in terms of plot, but I don’t think it gives much away in isolation. In any case, if anyone reads this, they will most probably forget about it by the time I actually publish!

If I remember anything about those days, it was being there in early summer. I don’t know if I’m thinking of one time in particular or if this is a fusion of many different occasions, but it has crystalised in my mind. Laying on the tufted grass beneath tall, dark trees, the damp seeping through our clothes as the sun slid down. The little bursts of activity when someone would say something, or throw something. Then there’d be chasing and shouting. More laughing. We were like a family of sparrows in a hedge; rising, circling, settling again.

And then the darkness. The low, murmured conversations as groups and couples formed. Secrets and kisses exchanged under those trees as the light faded and the temperature fell. But then, suddenly, it would end. It would be too cold, or somebody would have to get the last bus back to their village and we’d all amble back to the lights and traffic, leaving the magic behind for another day.

You may not even remember me being there. I was one of the quiet ones, more likely to be watching than running around squealing and hoping to be caught. But you were often there and, if you were, I knew that. I knew that with a force I don’t mind admitting now, all this time later. If I was a watcher, it was you I was watching. It always had been.

The park appears quite often in this novel. It is a fictional fusion of many parks I have known over the years, but the passage above is based on my memories of Knole Park in Sevenoaks.

Free books deals during the lockdown

Each of my novels will be free for five days in a series of deals starting on May 3rd, 2020. To read more about them, click on the links above. These will take you to the blurb, plus one of my favourite reader reviews.

I hope there will be some readers who my give my work a try. I hope my novels might provide a few hours of entertainment during the lockdown.

Stay safe, everyone!

The Little Willowford Mission (9)

Report Nine

Most wise and merciful Commander, I was overwhelmed with delight on receiving your communication. I will surely comply with all your stipulations and I fully expect to begin the process of gathering ‘hard evidence rather than aimless waffle’ as you were so perspicacious as to describe my previous reports. With this in mind, my report begins with an example of my ability to turn a problem into an opportunity for research.

Commander, you will be aware that the dwelling is furnished with a number of machines designed to release me from domestic drudgery, thus providing the maximum amount of time for the collection of evidence. One of these machines is for the purpose of laundering garments. Whilst relatively primitive in comparison to our own devices, it functioned in an acceptable fashion to begin with, although I could have wished for a more efficient method of drying.

Recently, I have identified a malfunction.  Many of the garments you so generously provided are now too now small for the body, so I can only assume that there is a difficulty with the temperature settings. I will investigate that presently.

Faced with the unavoidable fact that many of the methods of fastening the garments were no longer operational, I foresaw a situation whereby I would be unable to dress at all and would thus find myself confined to the dwelling. With no further delay, I retrieved a quantity of currency from its hiding place and made the now familiar journey into Town, where I had observed a number of establishments for the selling of garments.

Commander, I have to report that the purchase of garments is considerably more complicated than I could have imagined and I regret deeply that I carried out little research in advance of my trip.

The first establishment I entered was called Topshop. This must be the best shop in town, I thought, as I remembered reading that the word ‘top’ can indicate relative merit in addition to location. There were many garments arranged on rails in the shop and I was certain all my requirements would be met in a short time.

Commander, I was wrong. I examined the garments in great detail, but there were none that appeared similar to those in my dwelling. Many of them were so small that I deduced they were designed for children. Two young humans, one male and one female, stood to one side of the shop but it was otherwise empty. They were much engaged in looking at a screen, but I assumed one would approach me to offer assistance as soon as their task was complete. Unfortunately, their task was of such significant duration that I was forced to abandon Topshop and seek an alternative establishment, having made not a single purchase.

It was not long before I came across another establishment. It was named Street Cred and it was a good deal smaller than Top Shop. At first sight, it did not seem promising. The plastic figures in the window did not display garments of the kind I sought. However, I was cheered by the appearance in the doorway of a young woman who smiled at me in a most friendly manner and invited me to ‘come and have a browse.’

Commander, my experience in this shop was so unlike Topshop that it is hard to believe these establishments are in such close proximity. The young woman was excessively attentive and encouraged me to examine a multitude of different garments. She was not at all perturbed by my repeated assertion that I was seeking only replacements for the garments I was wearing.

‘What size are you looking for?’ she cried, leaping towards me as I examined items which I believe are known as jeans. This seemed like a strange question to be certain.

‘Why, my own size,’ I replied. ‘I would not consider buying for another person as I fear I am ill-equipped to buy for myself.’

Commander, she was truly the most patient shop-keeper. She explained that garments are manufactured in different sizes and that these sizes are denoted numerically. She measured the dimensions of the body and declared that I should be looking for garments of size 16.

‘But you might get into a generous 14,’ she added, ‘or you might find you need to slip up to an 18 with some brands.”

I have yet to discover the benefits of a numerical sizing system with this degree of flexibility. Indeed, you may not think it is important, so I will delay researching this until I have word from you on this matter.

Commander, I regret to say that I have wasted some of the currency. The young woman persuaded me to purchase a garment for which I will have no use. It was impossible to leave empty-handed after such kindness and consideration, but many of the garments in her shop were unsuitable for the body as they were defined as skinny.

At last, when currency had been exchanged, she placed the colourful silk jacket with tasselled sleeves (part of the new beachware range), in a shiny bag which she handed to me with a smile.

‘Have you tried ASDA?’ said she. ‘I believe they have quite a good range, in all sizes.’

You will be delighted and proud to hear that my second visit to ASDA was excessively successful in comparison to the first. There were, indeed, many garments of size 16 to meet all my needs. Unfortunately, I was unable to hold both the garments and the food items I had identified, but I am pleased to say there were sufficient biscuits in the dwelling to sustain the body for one more day.

I remain your most devoted minion,

Jane Brown (Mrs)

 

The Little Willowford Mission (8)

Report Eight

Commander, I beg you! Please do not terminate my role in this mission! To return after such a short sojourn would bring upon me great shame and ridicule from my peers. Indeed, I am becoming quite accustomed to this body, despite its inadequacies, and I fear I would miss it greatly. Commander, I promise never again to throw doubt upon the great collection of knowledge that has enabled this most illustrious mission. There can be no explanation other than that I misunderstood the woman in the library. I was quite overwhelmed upon finding this extraordinary collection of books in such an unexpected venue. I promise never again to question the great Earth historians and commentators. I truly revere Austen, Scott, Shelley and all those others chosen to be our guides, many hundreds of cycles ago, by our own most learned forebears.

If you are so beneficent as to forgive me, Commander you will not regret it. In anticipation of your approval, I have re-established my relationship with Pam and this, I believe, will begin to provide us with most useful information. I will recount the means by which this occurred:

It was a fine day, so I put aside my anguish at your communication and carried outside one of the chairs from the dwelling. There I sat, in a shaft of warm sunlight, enjoying a drink of tea – for which I confess I have developed quite a liking. I had not thought to be disturbed, so I was greatly surprised to hear a call from the direction of Pam’s garden.

‘Hello there! Could you make use of a little table? The Old Man was about to take it to the tip, but you can have it if you like.’

I jumped up and hurried to the fence. This was indeed a fortuitous turn of events. I conveyed my gratitude to Pam and asked her to pass on also my thanks to The Old Man.

‘You can tell him yourself,’ said she. ‘He’ll bring it round now.’

Commander, you can imagine my confusion when I opened the door to find Pam’s husband standing there. It would appear that he and The Old Man are one person. I have yet to discover why he has two identities or whether this practice is widespread amongst humans.

‘Here you go, love,’ were his only words. ‘Shall I carry it through for you?’ Without waiting for my reply, he marched through the house and assembled the table on the concrete area outside. The table was neither heavy nor difficult to erect, but the act appeared to give him pleasure so I said nothing until the task was complete.

‘My dear Old Man,’ said I at last. ‘Allow me to thank you for your kindness. This is a most welcome addition to my garden.’

Later, I reflected upon this interaction and determined that there was much to be learned from it. It would seem that the passing of time has eroded many of the social conventions my training had taught me to expect. That is why, my most esteemed Commander, it is so important that I am allowed to continue my mission. A close relationship with Pam and The Old Man will provide me with first hand experience it would be most difficult to obtain otherwise. With that in mind, I set about creating a plan and I am delighted to report this has already begun to bear fruit.

Commander, I know not how many hours and minutes I spent at the back window upstairs in my dwelling. I observed a great number of birds and other creatures that visited my garden and that of my neighbours, but these were not the object of my attention. No, at last she appeared, and I hurried downstairs and into my garden with such haste that it was hard to regulate breathing.

‘Pam!’ I called. My quarry looked up in surprise. It is possible that some of my excitement had transferred to my voice.

‘Oh, hello,’ said she, without ceasing to peg a variety of garments onto a revolving structure I had not noticed before.

‘I am much obliged for your kind gift of the table,’ I said, ‘and I would be delighted if you would take tea with me this afternoon or at another time convenient for you.’

Pam ceased her toils with the laundry and approached the fence.

‘Well, that would be very nice, I’m sure,’ said she. ‘Shall I pop round about 3?’

Now, Commander, I must impart the most important news. Pam’s visit to my dwelling was excessively successful. Although I had already consumed a great quantity of my purchases from the ASDA, there were a few remaining and Pam was most pleased to partake of them.

‘Oh, I’ve never seen so much chocolate!’ she declared. ‘You’ll be the death of me!’

Naturally I reassured her that her death was very far from my intention and she laughed merrily at my words. Indeed, she laughed considerably throughout the time we were together. At last it was time for her to leave and tend to The Old Man who, she said, was incapable of boiling an egg. It occurred to me to suggest an alternative meal for him, but she rose and hurried to the door before I could speak.

‘That was lovely,’ said she as she left. ‘We must do it again soon.’

Thus, Commander, it is clear that this relationship will continue, if only you allow it. I await your reply with hope and trepidation.

Your most devoted servant,

Jane Brown (Mrs)

The Little Willowford Mission (7)

Report Seven

Most esteemed Commander, may I offer you excesses of gratitude for forwarding me the legal opinion you so generously sought on my behalf. I am extraordinarily relieved to discover that I am not required to install all the missing horticultural elements in the garden of my dwelling. Indeed, if I had taken the trouble to read the Tenancy Agreement carefully and in less haste, I would not have leapt to these erroneous conclusions. The words are perfectly clear and I can only apologise for mistaking them. ‘As at the start of the tenancy’ should have been beyond misinterpretation to a being of my advanced intelligence and I resolve to do better from this point.

Nonetheless, my relief on reading your response was somewhat tempered by my anxiety relating to Pam. As you will remember, I had used the poor condition of the garden at my dwelling to initiate a conversation with her, with the hope that it could lead to further interactions. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. In the week since my previous report, we have had five communications as follows:

Weather related: 2

Refuse collection related: 1

Good morning/afternoon: 2

I am perfectly aware that these fall very short of the promise shown during our first meeting, and I can only conclude that an initial display of friendship such as that shown by Pam is not necessarily an indication of a lasting relationship. On the contrary, she seems in recent days to be avoiding any conversation at all. I have yet to establish what purpose the invitation to drink tea served for her, as she gained nothing material from the interaction. In fact, she expended two teabags and a small volume of milk from her supplies. I will continue to ponder this.

Commander, I trust your disappointment at the collapse of the Pam initiative will not lead you to imagine I have been idle. This is far from the truth and I have news of such import that you will cease to concern yourself about Pam. As it became clear that no further cups of tea were to be offered, I decided today to make another journey into the larger settlement which is known locally as ‘Town’ although that is not its name. My purpose was to discover more about the reasons why the population make this journey. I assume that at least a proportion of the passengers I met on the first occasion must travel in this way on a regular basis, as many of them knew each other. It is impossible to believe they could choose to visit the ASDA anything other than occasionally, so what were they doing?

Having boarded the bus, I was surprised to find it almost empty. Only three other people were already seated and we were joined by just two more throughout the entire journey. This was most disappointing, but then it occurred to me that I was an hour later than previously. Clearly the bus’s function as a social venue is intermittent and the 10:20am service is designed for transport only.

You will be pleased to learn that I did not allow yet another set-back to affect my plan. No, I chose at random one of the passengers and vowed to follow her wherever she went, taking notes as I went. Unfortunately, I selected this passenger unwisely, as her purpose in making the journey remains very unclear. Although she entered seven shops, she bought items in only two and wandered in an apparently aimless fashion for such a time that it became increasingly challenging to avoid being seen by her. Commander, I was about to dismiss my whole day as a waste of precious time when she entered a building I had not noticed before, and what I discovered there was so fascinating, so important, that it makes all the frustration I experienced beforehand worthwhile.

The building was a library. I had not thought to find such a thing, believing them to be confined to the dwellings of the wealthy as described in many of our set texts. You will remember the library at Pemberley being mentioned as particularly fine, but there are other references too, if I had the time or inclination to find them. No, Commander, this library is nothing like those of which I have read and, indeed, hoped to visit before my return. It is open to the public and requires not even a subscription. My surprise on entering and seeing before me such a multitude of books, was such that I forgot my original reason for entering. I have no idea what the woman did whilst she was there, nor how long she remained, but that is of little significance compared to what I discovered.

Commander, I hesitate to impart such momentous news at this distance. Would that I could stand before you to say these words, but it cannot be avoided. The awful truth is that humans do not always write the truth. This is not limited, as might be imagined, to a few unscrupulous individuals who seek to trick or deceive their readers. No, it is much more serious and widespread than that, and I must confess that I found it hard to believe myself.

On entering the library, I was quite unable to comprehend what I saw. I stood, transfixed, for such a time that I was approached by a woman who asked me the now familiar question concerning help she could offer. My response was quite possibly incoherent, but I replied in the affirmative to her next suggestion, which was that she would accompany me on a tour of the library.

‘This is the fiction section,’ said she, indicating rows of shelves. ‘So you can see here we have the romance section, over there is science fiction and this is the general …’

‘Please forgive my interruption,’ I cried, ‘but pray, what is this fiction of which you speak?’

The woman appeared most disconcerted. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought … Well, fiction is the word we use for anything that is made up … invented. Stories and …’

She looked at me, clearly quite disturbed by my obvious surprise and dismay, but bade me follow her to the shelves on the other side of the room.

‘This is the non-fiction section. Everything here is factual. Based on fact. Everything in the fiction section is the opposite. It’s made up for people’s entertainment and enjoyment. Have I explained that well? I’m sorry, it’s not a question I’m asked very often.’

I hastened to reassure her that she had, indeed, explained the difference very well. I then invented some inadequate excuses for why I must leave in great haste, and left the building. Commander, the body shook from head to foot as I guided it to a bench. Could this really be true? If so, it throws much of our learning about this planet into doubt. I returned to the dwelling as soon as the body had sufficiently recovered and wrote this report with no further delay.

I remain your most faithful servant,

Jane Brown (Mrs)

 

The Little Willowford Mission (6)

Report Six

My dearest Commander, I can barely contain my excitement. I have news that I am confident will transport you to heights of great happiness. But, before I begin, I must thank you for your reply to my last report and assure you that I will, in future, restrict any detailed medical observations to the new reporting system you have devised for that purpose. I was most forlorn to hear about your own bout of queasiness and I hope that this report finds you entirely recovered.

And so to my news. Commander, I have made a friend. Please do not be alarmed, I have not, like Doctor Frankenstein in the much-loved book from the required reading list, constructed a body from disparate parts and shocked it into life. I am fully aware that our own scientists discounted this option many hundreds of cycles ago and I have no evidence that it has ever been repeated successfully here. No, my friend is a perfectly normal human female of a similar age to my body. I believe she will be most useful to our mission.

The woman is known as Pam. It is likely that she has other names, but I have not yet been able to discover them. She lives in a dwelling very close to my own, in fact there is but one other dwelling between us. Commander, I must be entirely truthful. The interaction that led to the formation of this relationship was not at my instigation, neither was it planned. I would prefer that it were not so, that it was the successful culmination of a plan, but it seems I must be content with fortuitous events.

Just two days ago, I was inspecting the area of land at the rear of the dwelling. This is known as a garden and I will refer to it in that way throughout this report. I was cognisant of your direction to comply at all times with the written instructions in the document named Tenancy Agreement and you will remember that I am required ‘to keep the patio areas, paths, garden areas, lawns, flower beds, shrubs or bushes and borders as tidy, weed free and in seasonal order as at the start of the tenancy’. Despite several hours’ research, I was unable to identify many of those elements that require my attention. I recognised grass and a path constructed of squares of what I believe to be stone or concrete, but I could find no sign of plants, flower beds, shrubs or bushes.

I was in danger of falling into a state of depression when I heard a voice.

‘Lovely day!’

I looked in the direction from which the voice had originated and saw a woman standing in a similar position to myself, outside her own dwelling. There is little in the way of fencing between our respective gardens and I could see that hers was quite the opposite of mine, containing many different kinds of plants. I decided to respond. Surely, it would have been most ill-mannered to ignore her greeting.

‘Yes it is, indeed, a very pleasant day,’ said I.

I have discovered through many hours of observation, that human weather-related greetings do not require the recipient to offer an honest opinion concerning the meteorological conditions at that time. Indeed, I believe it would be considered inappropriate to challenge the instigator’s personal assessment. The following provides a supporting example: whilst waiting at the transport stop following my visit to the ASDA, I observed a young man wearing only a thin upper garment approach a much older man who was wearing both a hat and a coat. They clearly had an existing relationship as they greeted each other with smiles.

‘Hello, Callum, bit chilly today, ain’t it?’ said the older man.

‘Too right, Harry,’ was the reply, whereupon the younger man, who was clearly not at all chilly, patted his friend upon the shoulder and walked away at some speed.

Commander, I digress. Fascinating although these insights into human behaviour are, I must continue with my account of how I was successful in continuing an interaction which would normally have terminated at that point. I walked towards the fence and made exaggerated head movements to indicate that I was looking at her garden.

‘I am in great admiration of your garden,’ I called.

‘Oh, thanks,’ was her reply, ‘but it’s mostly the old man’s work. I just get to enjoy it.’

I did not know the identity of this old man and wondered if he could be persuaded to transform my own garden so that it resembled hers and thus met the conditions of the Tenancy Agreement. I was about to ask her how I might contact him, when she spoke again.

‘Come and have a look if you like.’

I replied in the affirmative and, Commander, there I was, sitting at a small table and drinking a nice cup of tea within minutes of our first interaction. I hope you will be impressed. After that, Pam showed me the garden and pointed out so many different plants and shrubs that I had no chance of remembering them all. She also showed me a water feature and many models of small animals, some manufactured from plastic and some from stone. Fortunately, these do not appear in the Tenancy Agreement so I do not feel obliged to acquire anything similar.

I was most content in Pam’s garden and was delighted to accept her offer of a second cup of tea. That was when the conversation turned away from the garden and I was shocked to find that Pam was happy to divulge many details of her life to me, despite having only known me for approximately one hour. She showed me a large number of pictures of children she referred to as ‘grandkids’ and provided me with information about their skills and talents which, I was glad to tell her, were so numerous that the said children must be considered veritable prodigies. I did not have the opportunity to question her about the old man, as her husband arrived home shortly after we had finished our cups of tea, and made enquiries about his forthcoming dinner.

Sadly, I have not yet been able to identify any information that may be useful to our mission, but I am confident that Pam will prove to be a most remarkable asset as our relationship develops. I hope, dear Commander, that you will agree this has been a most productive week.

Your most obedient servant,

Jane Brown (Mrs)

 

The Little Willowford Mission (5)

Report Five

Cherished Commander, the time that has passed since my last report has allowed little opportunity for observations. Subsequent research has indicated that the body acquired an infection known as a cold, probably when travelling on the bus. This word is only partially descriptive of the symptoms, which included a raised body temperature for one day.

Commander, I have to confess that I was sorely tempted to flout your instructions and abandon the body for a short time. The progress of this infection was most unpleasant. In addition to the shivering, the raised temperature and the pain associated with swallowing, copious quantities of slimy discharge exited the body via the nose for several days and I experienced sneezing, a most alarming symptom over which the body has no control.

Naturally, I have taken comprehensive notes concerning the course of this infection and these will provide very useful data. I will send them presently. Although I have found it hard to rejoice in the experience, I am confident that you will gain great pleasure from my report, in particular relating to my detailed description of the evolution of the discharge, from watery and colourless to glutinous and green.

As I have left the dwelling hardly at all this week, this is a perfect opportunity to report on my visit to the ASDA last week. I am gratified to inform you that my memory of the event is almost as clear as it was the following day, such an impression it made upon me.

Having discovered the location of the store – this too was a challenge – I remained outside for some minutes, observing the population. It soon became clear that there was a very wide range of socially acceptable behaviour associated with the procurement of items from this place. Some people took wheeled metal trolleys in with them, whilst others entered without. People entered alone, with others or in larger groups. I could detect no discernible dress code and observed both men and women with areas of exposed flesh. The reasons for this were unclear, but it seems unlikely that they were displays associated with attracting a mate as I believe can be the case. One woman wore shoes made of fur that I previously thought were associated with nightwear so I have adjusted my records to reflect that.

I decided to enter without the encumbrance of a wheeled trolley, but this proved to be a misguided decision. The green plastic basket I chose became quite excessively laden and I found it very difficult to carry. Commander, you may ask how this could be. Surely I had determined in advance the products I intended to purchase and judged my capacity to transport them? That is true, but I found I soon became ensnared by the ASDA and placed involuntarily into my basket, a large number of items I had not planned to purchase.

How could this be? By any measure I am a highly sentient being, far superior in intelligence and evolutionary design to the humans for whom the ASDA is designed, and yet I was not able to function normally within its walls. There are, I believe, several reasons for this, although I have yet to discover if they are present by accident or design.

  1. The layout of the ASDA is such that it is impossible to buy a small number of items without passing many thousands of others. There appears to be no logical reason for the placement of items in relation to each other.
  2. The ASDA appears to function also as a social setting for customers to stand with others for long periods discussing issues relating to their families. Their trolleys are often ignored, thus slowing progress around the store. In addition, small children run, untethered, between the high shelves, causing further confusion.
  3. The lighting in the ASDA is bright and over-stimulating, inhibiting judgement when selecting items.
  4. The acoustics of the ASDA are such that there is a continuous high level of background noise including music, punctuated by incomprehensible announcements over a loud-speaker system. This makes customers anxious to leave, whereupon they forget items and have to return to areas they have already visited, thus exposing themselves to further temptation.
  5. Odours relating to the baking of bread and sweet confectionary pervade the store, despite the fact that these items are produced at the rear. This stimulates the body into demanding such items.

Commander, you will be shocked to hear that my progress around the ASDA, from the time I entered its precincts to the moment when the system for payment wished me farewell, was 2 hours, 17 minutes and 30 seconds. As I stepped into the daylight, burdened with two heavy sacks, the body began to feel very unusual and I had to take it to a nearby seat to rest.

Clearly, I will be obliged to return. The items I carried back to the dwelling bear little resemblance to those I had intended to buy. In addition, I found myself unable to operate the payment system and was forced to stand by while a young human male not only scanned my items but also removed the currency from my wallet, a task I would have been more than capable of carrying out myself. He touched the body on the arm on three occasions, with no obvious reason, and referred to me as his love more times than I could count. I found it impossible to challenge this assertion although it was so obviously false. I assume this was the result of the trauma I had experienced.  

I will be better prepared on the next occasion, Commander, and will be able to produce a much more comprehensive report. However, I believe I may tarry a while before my next excursion to the ASDA. The body requires a significant period of recovery before another attempt is made.

Your faithful and obedient officer,

Jane Brown (Mrs)